Ask A Counselor: Can We Talk About Domestic Violence?

suitcase“Would you talk about domestic violence on the mission field?”  That’s the question I got last month.  “Wow,” I replied, “I sure would.”  And then, my friend shared the story that follows.  I’m passing it along with her permission, and with a few changes made to protect identities.


There is a suitcase in my home where my dear friend, a fellow missionary, puts items she has sneaked out of her house in case she needs to initiate her “safety plan” and leave with her two small children, escaping her abusive husband.

From the time they moved to this area, I could see things going on that indicated probable relational problems. The wife had little freedom to make decisions, even little ones. The husband restricted her finances and her activities. There was significant imbalance in the weight of responsibilities. All the housework, taking care of and disciplining the kids fell to her. He was free to come and go and had copious leisure time and she had very little. He would often interrupt what she was doing and her conversations with others, causing her to stop what she was doing to do what he was asking her to do.

These would have been red flags in my American culture, but these folks aren’t American. I don’t speak their mother-language tongue to know what was being said. And of course, as missionaries, we’re taught to not judge cultural differences too quickly. My husband and I considered that their culture may have distinctly different gender-roles than those we are familiar with. But something felt wrong.

In time my relationship with the wife deepened. I began to see signs that she may, in fact, be being abused. She lived as if she was unworthy of having any wants, desires, or needs of her own. She blamed herself for their marital difficulties; she sincerely believed that if she could fix herself or God would do a work in her life (to change her), then their marriage problems would be resolved. She defended her husband and protected him, at times taking responsibility for his shortcomings and bad choices. She was afraid of displeasing him, and so on.

My husband and I read the book Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft. It gave us invaluable insight into what was going on, and we knew that she was being abused. Eventually, I was able to suggest that my friend read the book. She did, and she began to recognize the abuse for herself. That was the beginning of something new. So very hard, but good.

I’m going over and over the events that have transpired, and aside from all the grief I feel for my friend and the sadness at the likelihood of her leaving, I’m struggling with guilt that I didn’t say something or do something sooner. I feel this huge weight that there are probably other missionary women out there in abusive situations and other friends like me who don’t recognize abuse, who don’t do something about it for a long time, and who may have even enabled the abuse!

These are some of the things that I think would be helpful for missionaries to be aware of:

  • Abuse can be hidden behind culture and language. We’ve got to trust the voice of the Holy Spirit when He prods us with the sense that “something is wrong here.” Even if certain cultural norms are generally accepted, practices that oppress women or other societal groups should absolutely be questioned and measured against Scripture.
  • Abuse hides and even thrives behind Christian doctrine on gender roles. This topic is a mine-field, isn’t it?
  • Abusers are masters of maintaining their public reputation. Likeable men who contribute to ministry can be abusers. So we all need to be able to recognize the signs of abuse and be familiar with different kinds of abuse. *
  • On the mission field, abused women have little access to resources. In their home countries, they could flee to a family member or friend’s home. Overseas, escape can be very difficult, especially if a woman is financially dependent on her husband.
  • There is one thing I should have realized a long, long time ago. If I (and others in the missionary community) are tip-toeing around a man, expending effort to avoid any kind of disagreement or confrontation with him because I am afraid of inciting an angry or unpleasant response, there is a good chance that his wife and children are afraid of his responses too.
  • We are concerned with justice for those we are ministering to, but can so easily miss (or ignore) the injustice happening right under our noses. By not addressing, questioning, or confronting the abuser for injustices carried out in public, we have been enabling the abuse to continue.

I am so thankful we’ve been able to receive some help from an American counselor with extensive experience working with abusers and the abused. He and his wife were able to spend some time with my friend (but not her husband). We learned from him that this is not the first case of domestic abuse that he has encountered in our organization in this region.

The story continues to play out. The family is returning to their home country; the elder board of their home church is calling them back. They don’t see or acknowledge that there is abuse going on; they only see my friend’s emotional instability. Our hope and prayer had been that the husband would agree to work with the counselor I mentioned, but he refused.


*For more information on the signs of abuse, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Here is a resource that identifies how power and control contribute to various types of abuse.

Here’s a Mud Stories podcast from a woman who survived domestic violence overseas.


Let me just share a few notes with you on how domestic violence is usually treated in the States.

  • Domestic violence may include verbal abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse. Economic abuse is often a factor in these scenarios, when a woman is not allowed the financial independence that might lead to her escape.
  • It’s extremely important to understand that issues of abuse are NOT conceptualized as “marital problems.”
  • While we understand that the victim of the abuse is not a perfect person, abuse is never an acceptable response to any provocation whatsoever.
  • Abuse is something for which the abusive person needs to take responsibility and seek treatment.
  • Therefore, abuse is not primarily treated in couples counseling.
  • If someone recommends couples counseling when abuse is part of the relationship, this is not best practice.  Seek help elsewhere.
  • The abuser would usually attend a Batterer’s Intervention Program.
  • The victim would benefit from attending a group for battered women (often offered at local woman’s shelters) and personal counseling for trauma recovery.
  • Women’s shelters are available in many communities, and many shelters provide services for accompanying children as well.
  • Separation is a very common and healthy boundary during treatment.

I have been asked by clients if I believe that domestic violence is grounds for divorce, and my answer to that is yes.

I do believe that domestic violence is grounds for divorce.

While divorce is never what we hope for, sometimes it is the most just and merciful outcome we can humanly facilitate.

The church has been careful to tell people that the only ground for divorce is adultery, and I am aware that this is the boundary stated in Mosaic law.

While the Mosaic law may be well-meant as a deterrent to divorce, to abusive people it becomes a boundary that allows them to skate on the side of “righteousness” while perpetrating all kinds of sin and abuse on their families.

I believe that we are held to a higher standard than the Mosaic law.  We are held to the standard of justice and mercy, as Jesus warned:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.  You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”  Matthew 23:23

“And you experts of the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.”  Luke 11:46

Justice and mercy matter most.

May we never forget.

Photo Credit (changes made) 
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Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:

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